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Nolan’s hymn to human connection

“Interstellar” finds the heartbreak in Einstein’s thought experiments

Tom Shone | October 27th 2014

Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” can only really be approached by a series of paradoxes similar to those chalked up on a blackboard near its start. Just as the theory of relativity dictates that space and time are functions of one another, so the film welds commercial blockbuster and auteurist cinema into a single, stunning ribbon of celluloid—movie as Möbius strip—with obvious debts to both Spielberg and Tarkovsky. It’s both the most boffinish of Nolan’s films and the most boldly open-hearted, a hymn to human connection that mows you down, turns you inside out and deposits you on the pavement afterwards, blinking. And yet if someone were to ask you what it was about you would probably mumble something about black holes, or wormholes, and the like. The film is its own astrophysical anomaly. There have to be 99m alternative universes in which “Interstellar” is a bad movie and another couple of hundred in which it is a terrible one. And yet, Nolan has finagled his way to the single universe in which it is a good, and maybe even great one.

Let’s get the flaws out of the way, for they are there. The setting is the not-too-distant future, and America has been turned into a giant dustbowl. “We didn’t run out of planes and television sets,” the principal of his daughter’s school tells Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), “we ran out of food.” It’s basically Nolan’s vision of hell: a world in which science has been junked. Everyone is encouraged to work as a farmer, and Cooper’s past as a NASA pilot gives him a status just a notch above that of local crank. But one night, some strange electromagnetic happenings in his daughter’s bedroom spell out a series of map co-ordinates that lead Cooper, in the dead of night, to a secret compound where—wouldn’t you know—NASA has been secretly beavering away on a mission to find other habitable planets. And guess what: they’ve a rocket with Coop’s name on it leaving first thing the next morning. This is what is known in the scientific community as a plot hole, sucking all the plausibility and breathable oxygen towards it. “Why me?” asks Coop, forced, like many a Nolan character, to debate the credibility of the very tale in which he appears, as if via live script conference. “Until an hour ago, you were leaving without me.” To which the professor in charge of the mission, played by Michael Caine, replies, “Because you were chosen.” “By who?” asks Coop. Caine twinkles wisely.

I must confess that at this point I thought the movie doomed. I’d heard talk of exceedingly complicated scientific phenomena ahead, but the writers—Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who devised the immaculate backwards-running time scheme of “Memento”—couldn’t even get their man onto the launch pad without recourse to the intervention of astral higher powers.

The launch is the first sign that I needn’t have worried. It’s a stunning coup de cinema: we hear a countdown and the blast of igniting rockets, not over images of the launch itself, but shots of McConaughey, his face a mask of tears as he drives away from his daughter. That, says Nolan, is the real departure. It should come as no surprise that the maker of “Memento” and “Inception”—two masterpieces of watchmaker cinema—should have wound up at the door of Albert Einstein, who deduced the postulates of relativity while processing patents for synchronised clocks as a clerk in Bern. But it was a masterstroke on Nolan’s part to sense the potential for heartbreak hidden in Einstein’s thought experiments, with their sundered twins ageing at different rates, and parted relatives waving to one another from train platforms. Simply put: no departure without leaving someone behind. And so it is that Coop and his crew—Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi and Wes Bentley—first set down on a water planet, where Nolan springs the most fiendish plot device of his career: every hour spent by Cooper on this planet means a seven-year chunk of his daughter’s life back on Earth. Tick tock. Tick tock. Even Hitchcock would have been jealous of that one.

I won’t tell you what happens beyond this point—you need to see this movie blind, the same way Coop and his crew head into the deep unknown—but suffice to say that Nolan has probably left his reputation for chilliness behind him. The great magician of cinema is said to have nothing up his sleeve once the trick is unravelled, but both “Memento” and “Inception”, once you exhausted their ingenuity, summoned a melancholy worthy of Methuselah. The idea of losing yourself in a dream for 50 years, as Leonardo DiCaprio did in “Inception”, was both awe-inspiring and terrifying, even if Nolan’s fans sometimes give every impression of wishing it physically possible. The emotion sprung by McConaughey when he hears how long he has been away is one I have never encountered in a film before: an entirely new compound of grief, loss, longing and terror at Time’s immensity. I’ve seen it addressed by poets, but not $200m blockbusters. Nolan would appear to be the wild offspring of Cecil B. DeMille and John Donne, who once imagined in “one little room an everywhere”. He would surely have thrilled to visions of galaxies bent and refracted, as if in a drop of water, by the space-time curvature around a wormhole.

There’s a mesmerising plainness to the film’s images—they hit you right between the eyes. In every battle between truth and beauty, you feel, truth won out, and yet the results have a beauty of their own, like that of higher mathematics. The blur of light around the circumference of a black hole has the elegance of a Gerhard Richter painting. Many great directors have ventured here and foundered. Robert Zemeckis went into a wormhole in “Contact”, which was based on the work of the theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, and came back with a vision of a sparkling, astral beach on which Jodie Foster could face her daddy issues. Not even Kubrick could come up with a convincing human drama to match his stunning visuals: “2001” was simply too big for human agency or narrative—his most memorable character was a homicidal computer. But Nolan has thought through his moral universe. Up here, time is as much of a resource as space and fuel, a fact with radical implications for human behavior and motivation. In an ordinary Hollywood movie, the desire to see your daughter and the desire to save the planet would be one and the same. But what if you had to choose? Nolan uses relativity to drive a stake right through the heart of evolutionary theory: what if one man, protecting his nest, doomed the species? Hey, an Einstein v Darwin death match! Who expected that in the blockbuster hit of the season?

There are stretches that invite church giggles. The sight of McConaughey instructing his robot to reduce its “sense-of-humour rating” to 75% may feel uncannily like the instruction this unusually grave director gives his audience. But gravity has its place and so do church giggles. Nolan has constructed one almighty cathedral, complete with the pipe organs of Hans Zimmer’s magnificent score, with its echoes of Philip Glass, and the handheld poetry of Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography, with its strains of Terrence Malick. Returning the science to science-fiction, Nolan has fashioned a work of genuine speculative power, knotty with paradoxes and problems. Nolan agnostics—and I’ve been one myself at times—may have met their match. These doubts are perfectly legitimate: cleverness, particularly of the mass-market variety, makes for a suspicious aesthetic package. But “Interstellar” makes an appeal to more than just the cerebral cortex. Coming clean about how much he loves science has liberated the artist in Nolan—he’s made the movie with all of him. It deserves to reach a lot of people.

Interstellar opens on November 5th in America and November 7th in Britain

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